The Briefing 01-12-17

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What to watch for in the Senate's confirmation hearings on Trump's cabinet nominations

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Meryl Streep, the Golden Globes, and Hollywood's "new kind of culture war"

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Bubbles, automobiles, and zip codes: How a worldview is shaped

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The culture of death and theology: Faith leaders "bless" new Planned Parenthood facility

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Transcript

The Briefing

January 12, 2017

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Thursday, January 12, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

What to watch for in the Senate's confirmation hearings on Trump's cabinet nominations

A great deal of our national attention these days is being paid to the confirmation hearings before the United States Senate. This has to do with the Senate’s constitutional responsibility of advice and consent in this case the constitutional requirement that major appointees by the President of the United States be confirmed by a majority in the United States Senate. The confirmation hearings this week have had to do primarily with Rex Tillerson, appointed to be Secretary of State, and Senator Jeff Sessions, appointed to be Attorney General of the United States.

In our time, these hearings before the respective Senate committee have become something of political theater. That might be inevitable. But keep in mind the fact that throughout most of our nation’s history citizens had no direct access to these hearings, no way to see them or to hear them, and only a very small number of Americans probably read anything about them in terms of the newspapers.

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But these days given the ubiquity of news and the ability of cameras to go right into these hearings, Americans can hear them and see them, experience them contemporaneously with the Senate itself. It was the arrival of television, live television, in these hearings that turned them into political theater. And by political theater, we mean this quite explicitly. Many United States Senators in these hearings are actually seeking to score political points more than they are actually addressing themselves to the issues at hand, the hearing, or much less to the person who has been nominated by the President in terms of the confirmation of the nomination. That’s still, however, a very legitimate power of the United States Senate, and Christians thinking about this should remember that in these hearings every once in a while something actually very significant takes place, something significant is said. We are, after all, looking at one of those very rare opportunities when there can be a genuine discussion, even a genuine debate, over matters of very important national and international policy.

We also need to note that when we talk about the President’s cabinet, we’re talking about a group that is not itself mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution mentions the heads of departments, but the cabinet itself is a reference not so much originally to a group as to a room where the political leaders appointed by the President first met. Oh, and by the way, that itself is a very interesting point. Constitutionally, at least at this point, the President-elect of the United States Donald Trump has not legally made any nominations to his cabinet; but of course that’s something of a political fiction, because the hearings are taking place. But officially his nominations cannot take place until he takes the oath of office as President of the United States, which is why none of these appointees, even if they are confirmed by the Senate, will take office until after the new President does.

The positions that by statutory law require Senate confirmation go far beyond the members of the president’s cabinet, but it’s important for us to recognize that, at least at present, when we refer to the cabinet, we are referring to the Vice-President of the United States and the heads of 15 executive departments of the government, all of them now serving as the President’s cabinet. On his sole authority, presidents can invite other people into the cabinet meetings and can even on a temporary basis award cabinet rank, but unless they are the heads of one of these 15 departments or the Vice President of the United States, they are not legally considered a part of the cabinet itself.

You can count on several days if not weeks of attention to these Senate confirmation hearings. Many of them are expected to be wrapped up before Inauguration Day on January 20. But given the scope of the Senate’s responsibility of advice and consent on these nominations, at least many positions will not be filled, it is now likely, until well into the year 2017.

Finally on this issue most attention is given to the big four positions in the cabinet. Those four positions in order of seniority are the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Defense, and the Attorney General of the United States. After the Vice-President after the Speaker the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, it is these cabinet members who are next in presidential succession.

Christians need to remind ourselves that the separation of powers inherent in the U.S. Constitution is there because of the legacy of Christian influence and the power the Christian worldview. The concern of the framers of the U.S. Constitution understanding human depravity and the danger of concentrating too much power not only in one branch of government, but in a single individual, did indeed design a strong executive in the American presidency. But they also put limits on the President’s sole power and authority. That too is important for Christians to realize, and even as most Americans simply see this as an exercise in political controversy, we need to understand that a great deal more is at stake.

Meryl Streep, the Golden Globes, and Hollywood's "new kind of culture war"

Next as we continue to think about how Christians should understand the political process around us, Brooks Barnes looks back at the Golden Globe Awards and controversy that emerged last weekend. She writes in the New York Times,

“It surprised no one that Hollywood used the Golden Globe Awards on Sunday as a platform to condemn Donald J. Trump. Moviedom power players mostly supported Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Many stars openly telegraphed their disgust when Mr. Trump won instead. The president-elect has struggled to book A-list talent for his inauguration. But nobody was quite expecting Meryl Streep, as she collected a lifetime achievement Globe, to so firmly lay down the gauntlet for a new kind of culture war.”

This new kind of culture war is not really so new. However, it is newly emerged in this context of Hollywood versus Washington D.C. What makes this story particularly new is that Hollywood in Washington D.C. during the Obama years considered themselves in very close companionship. And in terms of worldview, they certainly were. The close alliance between liberal Hollywood and the Democratic Party goes back most particularly to the presidency and to the campaign of John F. Kennedy, beginning in 1960, but the relationship has gotten cozier and cozier. It did so under the presidency of Bill Clinton, but particularly during the most recent presidency of Barack Obama. There was absolutely no doubt that the A-list in Hollywood comprised those who were ardent supporters of Hillary Clinton. That’s on the record in terms of fundraising, in terms of very prominent social events, in terms of the fact that so many actors and actresses showed up during the campaign, if not on the platform, of the Democratic National Convention and because, as the New York Times article here notes, of the angst and despair in Hollywood when Donald Trump won and Hillary Clinton didn’t.

The actual content of Meryl Streep’s address is not so interesting. What’s most interesting is the fact that she gave it. Unlike the New York Times, I really don’t find that very surprising. But what is surprising is the fact that so many in Hollywood seem to be completely unaware of the fact that they just might be out of step with other Americans, including millions of Americans who pay a great deal of money to see their movies. Those who achieve star status in Hollywood, or for that matter, the cultural elite status in New York City or Washington D.C., really don’t have to spend much time rubbing elbows with other Americans. Those who are bipolar in this country between New York City and Los Angeles, for example, often refer to the heartland of this country as flyover country. You rarely have to stop there unless your plane has a problem.

The most newsworthy aspect of Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globe Awards on Sunday night seemed to be exactly what the New York Times indicated here: the declaration of a new kind of culture war. And in this sense, it appeared that Meryl Streep, speaking on behalf of not only herself and her colleagues but Hollywood in general, was declaring something of a permanent war with the new presidential administration.

What is also apparent is that many in Hollywood and elsewhere inhabit what can only rightly be called bubbles—that is very small contained, encapsulated environments in which we hear only what we want to hear from only those from whom we are willing to hear anything. But bubbles, of course, are not only a problem of the left, they’re also a problem of the right. And that’s a new development.

Bubbles, automobiles, and zip codes: How a worldview is shaped

Until fairly recently, virtually all Americans had to watch the same news—going back just a matter of a few decades ago, it was three major nightly news programs on three major television networks. Other Americans might listen to radio or read several brand-name newspapers, but in any event, it was very difficult for conservative Americans to fall into a bubble because their bubble basically did not exist. That all changed with the rise of Fox News as a validly conservative news source, and then the rise of others in the alternative media. Now it is possible for persons on the right or on the left to inhabit only bubbles of their own meaning and conversation.

But even still, the problem is not equilateral. That’s to say, it isn’t an equal proposition. That’s because those who inhabit the bubbles on the left tend to make the decisions and establish the policies and create the programs and consumer content that are watched even by those in the bubbles of the right. In this country, intellectual and cultural elites have an outsized influence, and that has a great deal to do with the society today as we know it.

Ben Domenech, writing at The Federalist, very importantly calls all Americans, whether liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, to listen to one another and to make the effort to get outside of our own bubbles in order to hear one another. As he says,

“The acknowledgement of these bubbles, and the importance of breaking out of them, ought to be part of everyone’s resolution on how to approach the Trump era in 2017 and beyond.”

Domenech very carefully and helpfully points to the book Coming Apart published in 2012 and written by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute. Charles Murray offered in one chapter of that book what he called a “bubble quiz.”

As Domenech explains, it was “a test intended to indicate how close or far one is from the typical experience of life for mainstream white Americans.”

The test in the book was offered by Charles Murray to people in very different zip codes with extremely different results. According to Murray, the zip codes in America that offer the most insular bubbles are those in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. Murray’s bubble test was really interesting because it included quite practical questions such as whether or not and how often one might have eaten at restaurants such as Chili’s, Outback Steakhouse, Ruby Tuesday’s, or Applebee’s. The implication is quite clear. If you inhabit the liberal environs of New York City, San Francisco, Washington D.C., or Los Angeles, you probably never eat at one of these restaurants.

But this then points to another article that recently appeared at The Federalist, this one by Sean Davis entitled,

“Watch A Bunch Of Journalists Freak Out After Being Asked If They Know Anybody Who Drives A Truck.”

Davis is pointing to an exchange, a quite interesting exchange, on Twitter between journalists and some who might be their critics. But he points out the importance of the question whether or not a journalist might know anyone who drives a truck. Then Davis writes this,

“For those who might not be aware, trucks are really popular in America and have been for decades. The Ford F-series, for example, has been the most popular line of vehicles in America for 34 years in a row. Ford F-150’s are basically the jeans of vehicles: it’s nearly impossible to find a person in America who either doesn’t own one or doesn’t know someone who owns one. The top three best-selling vehicles in America are not cars, but trucks: the Ford F-series, Chevy Silverado, and Dodge Ram. The top-selling sedan is but a distant fourth. According to a 2014 survey conducted by IHS automotive, trucks were the most popular vehicles in a whopping 34 states. A separate 2015 study found that the F-150 was the most popular used vehicle in 36 states.”

Now keep those numbers very much in mind, then Davis writes what’s even more revealing,

“Why is this important? Because research has shown that vehicle preferences and political preferences are linked.”

Documenting the case, citing a study that had been made by the research firm Strategic Vision back in 2015,

“The five most popular vehicle models among Republicans, for example, are all trucks, with the ubiquitous Ford F-150 leading the way. Among Democrats, the Subaru Outback is the most popular choice.”

Davis then says,

“If you drive a truck, you’re probably a Republican. If you drive a Subaru, you’re probably a Democrat.”

Then note this in the 2016 election,

“Donald Trump won every single state in which the Ford F-150 is the most popular vehicle (even Pennsylvania). He won all but four of the states in which the Chevy Silverado is the most popular vehicle, including Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Hillary Clinton handily won the states where people prefer Subarus.”

What might explain the link between vehicle preference and political preference? There’s probably a great deal to it—more than can be documented in a study like this—but for one thing, most of these trucks represent an undeniably masculine image, and most of these drivers are men, although hardly all of them. But the other, perhaps biggest issue, is this: trucks are generally symbols of doing things—of occupations and callings that require a truck as a vehicle, not only of convenience, but of necessity. And even where that is not the case and there are so many of these trucks that are never actually used for construction or farming or other purposes, at least the one who buys that car or truck is indicating that the truck is supposed to send the signal that this is someone who admires those who would use them thusly.

Finally in terms of this big story, Michael Barone writing yesterday at the Wall Street Journal points out that if you ask the question which political party truly speaks for elites, it’s not the Republicans, although that’s the way many would answer the question, associating Republicans with big business. Rather, it is the Democratic Party. Michael Barone is as close as you could get to a walking encyclopedia of American politics. As a matter of fact, for many years he was the editor of the Almanac of American Politics, the indispensable guide for those who are political junkies. Michael Barone is also a very seasoned and responsible political observer. Like Charles Murray, he goes to the big four metropolitan areas of the cultural elites: New York City, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and San Francisco, including Silicon Valley. He points out that if you go to those zip codes in America, they not only vote Democratic by their political and financial contributions, they are massively weighted towards the Democratic Party.

Explaining in part why these four metropolitan areas are outsized in importance—after all there are very wealthy people who live elsewhere—but Barone explains,

“Rich oil and gas businessmen in places like Dallas might have a major influence on who’s the next president of Exxon Mobil. But the rich folks in the Big Four make decisions that affect every American.”

Just summarizing Barone says that,

“in New York, they decide what is on the evening news; in San Francisco, which conservatives to permaban from Twitter; in Los Angeles, what shows will appear on TV; in D.C., what loopholes will be written into tax law and whether the Keystone XL pipeline will be built.”

So putting this all together, it’s important to see that worldview presents itself in so many different pieces of evidence, including not only how one votes, but the car or vehicle one drives. If you drive a truck, you’re probably a Republican. If you drive a Subaru Outback, well, you’re probably a Democrat, and you probably vote that way. But we’re also told that zip codes make a difference, and they make a difference not only in terms of who lives where and gives what to whom, but who has outsized influence in this country. It’s also important that we see from this the responsibility of every single one of us to listen to voices outside of our own bubble, even if that requires seeking them out and to do our very best with respect to listen to one another. That might not happen from the cultural left, and it might be impossible for us to make it happen. But at least the rest of us should be very careful to listen respectfully and carefully and to measure everything by the Christian worldview, listening not only to ourselves, but to others.

The culture of death and theology: Faith leaders "bless" new Planned Parenthood facility

Finally and sadly, another revealing understanding of what’s happening on the left wing of American religion. Bob Allen, writing for Baptist News Global, writes with the headline,

“Despite criticism from conservatives, faith leaders bless new Planned Parenthood facility.”

Before leaving the headline, just consider that newly ambiguous phrase, “faith leaders.” Allen writes,

“While leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention and Republicans in Congress called for defunding Planned Parenthood, more than 20 local faith leaders came together Jan. 10 to pronounce blessings on the organization’s newest health clinic in Washington, D.C.”

Allen also tells us that the conveners were the Reverends Christine and Dennis Wiley, identified as co-pastors of Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ, identified as a predominately African-American congregation, listed as a member of the Alliance of Baptist and the District of Columbia Baptist Convention. You’ve heard of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention before. Just in recent days with the development that Calvary Baptist Church in that city—also allied with the District of Columbia Baptist Convention—has called very recently a married lesbian couple as the co-pastors of that congregation. As I said in terms of that story, this sets up an inevitable collision between the DCBC, as it’s known, and the Southern Baptist Convention. Now within a span of just a few days, yet another reason is presented to us and quite publicly.

In this case, it’s a DCBC congregation that is also now affiliated with United Church of Christ. That’s perhaps the most liberal mainline Protestant denomination. The website DCist broke the story, citing Dr. Laura Meyers identified as president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington as saying,

“In almost every message to our staff, I talk about our doing sacred work. This confirms the sacredness of the work we do.”

Just remember the work they do is the work of aborting unborn babies. The ceremony is reported by DCist as exactly what you might expect if you are writing a parody of such an occasion. We’re told that the facility first rang with the sound of drums as visitors entered courtesy of the all-female percussion troupe known as Batala Washington. The religious leaders gathered for the ceremony first heard prayer from a Rabbi, and then we are told that two Hindu priests chanted a mantra, which one of them explained “gives a good vibration to the building and anyone who comes in will be healed soon.”

Now keep in mind that exempted from that healing is the unborn child whose life is ended. We’re then told that later, once the ceremony was over and people were cleaning up the chairs, the two Hindu priests remained to flick holy water around the downstairs space because “when we chant mantras, vibrations go through the water.”

“To cap off the ceremony,” says DCist, “people wrote what they needed to get rid of on a stone, which they tossed and replaced with another stone that had a word of blessing—like courage or peace—on it. ‘Allow yourself to be blessed as you put it under the water and take it with you,’ said Christine Wiley, as the group sang ‘This Little Light of Mine’ together.”

Most chillingly, the event included Dr. Willie Parker, an abortion doctor from Mississippi, and as DCist says, the closest thing the abortion movement has to a rock star. Willie Parker said,

“Women have been made to think that this [clinic] is some evil place, where God is not, cursing [women] for making sacred decisions. Our answer to the curse is to bless.”

Notice here that this doctor is characterizing a mother’s decision to abort her baby as a sacred decision.

Here perhaps more than in any other story, we see the juxtaposition between two diametrically opposed worldviews, and of course it all comes down to theology. That’s acknowledged in the very existence of this story. And that theological divide comes down between those who see unborn human life, indeed every single human life at every stage of development, as sacred, and those who calls the intentional killing of a baby inside his mother’s womb as sacred work. There is nothing less than a great unbridgeable gulf between those two theological worldviews. And between them, no bridge can possibly be built.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing